What are decisions?While the perceived wisdom defines decision making as the process used to select new actions among several possibilities, I see decisions as more complex: I believe they represent change management problems, and current decision making often overlooks the full set of actions necessary to achieve optimal results. After all, unless a new decision can be implemented without resistance, and stands the test of time, it can be seen as a flawed judgment.
Because we forget that decisions don’t reside in a vacuum, we often restrict ourselves to weighting facts and uncertainty, or gathering information, and overlook the need to use unbiased thinking, facilitate buy-in from the relevant stakeholders (or synapses) and figure out how a new decision would effect the status quo.
Decision making based on comparative choice between ‘best’ or ‘rational’ or ‘good data’ is incomplete. Unless a new choice is adopted, accepted, and recognized as a fit to the beliefs and rules of the status quo, it won’t be adopted, regardless of its relevance. And no new action – to adopt an idea, buy something, agree to negotiation terms, change a habit – will occur otherwise.
GOOD DATA IS NOT ENOUGH
With the most accurate data, the most efficient solution, or the very best idea or moral righteousness, until or unless there’s agreement and a path in place for integration and adoption, a path that includes buy in and excludes resistance nothing will change. We can be right, smart, efficient, and moral – and buy-in can elude us regardless of how ‘right’ or ‘rational’ or necessary the new decision would be. Any new decision, any new choice, requires compliance with the norms of the entity making the change.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky originally said that people make ‘casino decisions’: they gather probabilistic possibilities and calculate the best route between them. But after years of trial and error they found the focus on helping people make ‘good’, ‘rational’ decisions to be of “limited success”. According to Michael Lewis’s new book The Undoing Project, Kahneman said it was necessary to evaluate a decision “not by its outcomes – whether it turned out to be right or wrong – but by the process that led to it.”
If rational action were all we needed, there’d be a lot less failure. We each have plenty of data showing us that even with right on our side, even with the best data, the most necessary outcome, we can end up making ‘bad’ decisions.
To make sure a decision will be successful, it’s necessary to plan a route to stakeholder buy in and change management before even considering weighted criteria, data, or ‘rational facts’ (all restricted by our unconscious biases that limit our search and curiosity).
HOW SUBJECTIVE BIAS SABOTAGES US
Our current decision making process limits the full range of possible outcomes. We must learn to question our intuition and assumptions, and begin by managing our systemic, unconscious, subjective biases.
Let me explain my shift in focus. As humans, we make hundreds of small and large decisions a day. Most of them are quick, simple, and vary on a continuum between conscious and unconscious: which jacket to wear, where to go on vacation, whether or not to say something or keep quiet. When we think something is missing or incomplete and seek a different outcome, we weight and consider facts or givens against our personal criteria (beliefs, values, history, knowledge, assumptions).
When considering choices, a lot is happening unconsciously. And this is where we need to add conscious choice because we’re always comparing the new consideration against the status quo. Without factoring in our internal assessments to ensure anything new will match our hierarchies of beliefs and values (usually unconscious), a decision to do anything different runs the risk of resistance and non compliance.
Indeed, it’s only when we’re convinced that our status quo seems lacking and the new choices feel either more accurate or comfortable, are we willing to adopt anything new. In other words, even if it would behoove us to make a new decision, if we’re comfortable with our status quo we won’t seek change.
This is particularly costly when teams seeking new choices restrict the range of possibilities: facts get researched and weighted according to the goals of a limited group of leaders and the most acceptable sources; assessments get made against accepted industry norms; and value structure of the status quo seems to be the authority on what’s acceptable.
Indeed, long before we determine possible options for choices we give ourselves over to our unconscious beliefs and subjective biases. If we don’t believe climate change has a human component, for example, we won’t feel the need to decide on which recycle bin to purchase, and will find ‘rational’ reasons not to believe a scientific argument filled with proven facts, regardless of its efficacy.
WHAT’S OUTSIDE OUR CONSCIOUS CHOICE
Without first uncovering our unconscious drivers during a decision making process, we end up biasing our outcomes before we barely begin:
- we only consider as relevant, or sanctioned, a tiny portion of available data that makes sense to us, thereby restricting our data gathering and baseline metrics severely;
- we dismiss, ignore, restrict, and resist any incoming data that runs counter to our values, beliefs, biases, and internal status quo, regardless of its relevancy;
- we define ‘rational’ according to our own beliefs, thereby biasing results;
- our unconscious biases take in, or leave out, potentially important data when our subjective filters interpret information.
As humans living in our personal, idiosyncractic worlds, we work hard to maintain our mental models and our synapses, synaptic connections, and neural pathways that keep them in place. Sadly, we seek to maintain our status quo regardless of the facts, the need, the relevance, or the weighted averages or the ‘rational’ choice.
Make no mistake: regardless of what we decide, our unconscious is always making what it believes to be its best choice for us. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an irrational decision; it’s always rational to our unconscious.
Think about this: Have you ever said to yourself “I think I’ll make an irrational decision”? ‘Irrational’ is a subjective term used by outsiders judging our output against their own beliefs and standards. I always ask, “Irrational according to who?” After all, science is merely a story in time, and ‘facts’ change (Remember when eggs were bad? Or when making an online purchase was a risk?), and there are oh-so-many to choose from!
Using a new type of question I developed (Facilitative Questions) to enable discovery, I once helped a friend decide on what to do with her attic. For years she fought herself on different types of wood and floor plan/design and couldn’t form a decision to take action because of her confusion. When we got to her unconscious she realized she hated her house, but hadn’t wanted to admit that to herself because moving would uproot her family. She had unconsciously delayed her decision, consciously focusing on entirely different issues to avoid dealing with a much larger problem. She was stuck considering the ‘wrong’ decision criteria for 3 years.
When we ignore our unconscious, we either delay a decision because it doesn’t feel right, gather data from insufficient sources, use partial data and miss the full picture or possibilities, or face a lack of buy-in, sabotage, or resistance. To get a good decision, we need to expand our scope of possibility. We can never get it ‘right’, but we can get it ‘righter.’
IS IMPLEMENTATION NECESSARY?
One of my beliefs is that without achieving a congruent output that’s acceptable to all and fits with the norms and values of the status quo, a decision will fail regardless of the accuracy of the facts. This is quite prevalent in among the Decision Scientist community. After keynoting to 200 Decision Scientists on Facilitating Decision Making a few years ago, I sat with them afterword and listened to them loudly bemoan the 97% implementation failure rate (Sadly, a common problem in the field.) they face. Here was part of our Q&A.
SDM: How do you prepare for a smooth implementation, or encourage buy-in?
We provide the best options as per our research. It’s their problem if they can’t implement. Our job is to find the right solutions and hand them over.
SDM: How do you acquire accurate criteria to design your research?
We speak with folks who want the decision.
SDM: If you’re only speaking to a subset (influencers, superiors, clients) of users, how can buy-in be achieved – even with good data and rational choices – if the full set of facts are possibly not being considered? Aren’t you limiting your fact-gathering to a predisposed subset? Aren’t you moving forward without consideration of those who may be involved at some point, have unique goals and data, and resist implementing decisions well outside their value structure?
Not our problem.
SDM: How can say you’re offering a ‘good decision’ if some of those who need to use the decision aren’t ready, willing, or able to adopt it because their reality was excluded from the initial data gathering?
We gather criteria from the folks who hire us, from recognized sources, and weight the probabilities. We give them good data. Feelings have nothing to do with it. Rational data is rational data.
They wouldn’t even consider that by doing initial fact-gathering from as large a set of people involved as possible, they’d not only acquire a larger set of identified goals, understand the foundational beliefs and values necessary to uphold the status quo, they’d set the stage for follow-on buy-in.
When we restrict the possibilities and people needed to define the criteria for a decision,
- we can’t gather the full data set decide with,
- alienate those would benefit from the outcome of the decision,
- cede control to our very subjective, and biased, unconscious.
How can we take action if it goes against our unconscious drivers, regardless of the efficacy of the available information? How can we know where to gather data from if we only pursue a biased segment of what’s available? How can we know if our decisions will be optimal if we’re being unconsciously restricted by our subjective biases and do not gather data from, recognize, or realize that we are restricting the full set of possibilities?
WHAT DOES OUR UNCONSCIOUS WANT?
In order to make our best decisions we (even teams and families) must integrate our conscious with our unconscious and find a route that expands scope and possibility without provoking resistance.
Here are some questions to ask ourselves:
What are my gut thoughts about what a new result would look like, act like, achieve? Am I comfortable with a change? Am I willing to contain/expand the parameters of the status quo? What would cause me to resist?
How far outside of my own beliefs am I willing to go to make sure I have as expansive a range of possible data as possible? Or must I maintain my current parameters (beliefs, or external mandates) regardless of the restrictions this poses on the outcome?
Should I add to what I already know? Or am I willing to explore what’s outside of my knowledge base that may make me uncomfortable? Where would I find acceptable resources to explore – and what would I find unacceptable?
What do I need to believe to be willing to consider data that I don’t ordinarily trust…and what, exactly constitutes trust?
Is there an inclusive idea that’s a ‘chunk up’ from my starting place that might encourage expansive consideration? I.e. if resistance is apparent, is there an idea, an outcome, which encapsulates the proposed change that doesn’t cause resistance? If everyone is fighting over house ownership in a divorce, maybe everyone can agree that a house is necessary for everyone’s well-being and move forward from there.
STEPS TO BETTER DECISION MAKING
There is a point when gathering data is necessary. But when? Here are steps to knowing when it’s time:
- Make sure all stakeholders, influencers, and unconscious drivers are involved in the initial problem description, data gathering and outcome-setting.
- Get internal (personal or team) agreement for the beliefs, norms, and values that a final solution should/shouldn’t entail.
- Make sure all stakeholders understand the upsides and downsides to all potential outcomes.
- Elicit concerns, fears, beliefs that any change would bring.
- Elicit hopes and viewpoints as to best outcomes, goals, and options.
- Everyone involved do research on data sources, studies, comparative projects, possible problems (or personally, research all brainstormed possibilities) using agreed-upon resources for data gathering, testing, parameters for results.
- Make sure a plan is in place to manage any disruption that the New will bring,
- Reach consensus, then begin a typical decision analysis/weighting.
With this approach, your testing and data gathering will have the possibility of being more reliable and complete, will reach the broadest parameters of choice, possibility, agreement, and will encourage buy-in for action. You’ll also be in place for implementing without resistance. Again, the final decision may not be ‘right’ because no decisions ever are, but it will certainly be ’righter.’
*For those wishing an expanded discussion/explanation of how to generate unbiased choice, read Chapter 6 of What? Did you really say what I think I heard?. I’ve also coded the sequential steps the brain travels en route to choice, and developed a model (Buying Facilitation®) that facilitates decision making and congruent change, for use in sales, coaching, negotiating, and leadership.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, author NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.